In today’s changing world, many people feel rushed and insecure. Depression occurs at all ages, including young people. Many are looking for a way out. What is all this for? And is there a way out?
Much has been said and written about the Canadian singer-songwriter, writer and poet Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), about his special voice, his charismatic personality, and the large number of beautiful songs he wrote throughout his life. A successful life and reason for satisfaction, you might think. But he also suffered from depression all his life. And he spent his life trying to heal from the mental pain he experienced. Some say they hear it in the melancholy timbre of his voice, dark-melancholic, and in his lyrics, poetic and in many cases confrontational. He knew this himself, his latest album is not without reason entitled ‘You want it darker?’
In a 1964 speech he propagates:
Search in every conceivable way, research using sex, drugs, fasting, but use everything as a means to seek God, to experience the perfection of the universe.
He has, judging by his way of life and his lyrics, done so in an intensive way. In the 1960s and 1970s, young people began to delve into Eastern ways of thinking, discovering, among other things, ‘the doing of not-doing’. This was sometimes interpreted as a call to give up all activity. In a later interview [i] he acknowledges that drugs do not offer real freedom, on the contrary.
Not many people are equipped to make a new start after the demolition of old structures; some don’t make a new start at all, they stop what they were doing and do nothing else. I’ve seen too many people burned out by speed and LSD.
Apparently he was strong enough not to be destroyed by drug use.
However, there were also easier ways for him to cope with his depression. He attached himself to a fixed daily schedule, which gave him structure and stability. Start with a cup of coffee, play the guitar for half an hour and then sit at the typewriter. And he wasn’t bothered by the mess piling up around him. But for him the point that everything revolved around was the heart:
True mass-destructive weapons are the hardened hearts of humanity. If the heart softens, then the attitude to life also softens.
He repeats this in many later interviews: it starts with the heart, which must be softened and opened. But that does not happen without a struggle, and also not with our free will, the ‘free’ of which he questions [ii].
We are usually triggered by our reflexes to react rather than that we act consciously.
For him it is evident that the opportunity to soften the heart and make a real change only arises in times of catastrophes of whatever nature . And while you might expect him to have become terminally depressed by his family’s experiences with persecution in Russia around the turn of the last century, and then by his own experiences with failed relationships, his own personal imperfection, loss of his entire fortune and the like, he himself didn’t see it that way at all. He did feel responsible for his own attitude to life and used various methods to gain self-knowledge. Not according to a fixed program but eclectic, trying all kinds of programs to hold on to the good of it. And especially by persevering on his path.
I just think that trying to get through is my program.
In a 1980 interview he says that the importance of the ego is greatly overestimated.
As we grow older we gradually discover that our work is insignificant, our bodies are fragile, and our relationships are unstable, so maintaining the ego on these foundations is fruitless and brings suffering. The only sensible thing to do is to make the ego less important. If the ego manages to step aside, to surrender its own will to the greater will that transcends our own will, then something takes its place that gives us something of the greater in return.
In the same interview he says about the relationship between the sexes that man and woman are not here without a reason, that
we have an urge within us to worship.
The attraction between the sexes represents something greater. He speaks here of true unity, something so many people long for. But that unity is of a completely different order than that of a utopian society. His entire work expresses a knowledge of having fallen from the greater, from the original unity, into a field of existence of duality, from which man must return to unity. Periods of setbacks are crucial because of the confrontation with fundamental life questions, as he says in his song lyrics:
There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
I recently discovered his Book of Mercy [iii], which he published in 1984, the year of his fiftieth birthday. This consists of fifty prose poems – he himself speaks of prayers. These poems testify to a deep longing, to a knowledge of having strayed, to a sense of incompleteness, to a yearning for release from the limitations of this time-bound, physical life, which from the start is assured of uncertainty and instability. The entire book exudes this realization, this insight into the possibilities of man to find a way out in this life and to taste an existence in eternity.
Verse 9 Blessed are you who has given each man a shield of loneliness so that he cannot forget you. You are the truth of loneliness, and only your name addresses it. Strengthen my loneliness that I may be healed in your name, which is beyond all consolations that are uttered in this earth. Only in your name can I stand in the rush of time, only when this loneliness is yours can I lift my sins toward your mercy.
He seems to speak on behalf of the lonely person of today, so highly individualized that there is less and less common ground with others. Who perhaps precisely because of this becomes focused on the search for the original unity and can only turn to the gate to the origin hidden deep in the heart. To the Other within himself, ‘your name, which is beyond all consolations that are uttered in this earth‘.
Leonard Cohen is difficult to classify into a specific category in terms of style. His melodies, lyrics and sometimes parlando singing style are unique. Perhaps the name twentieth-century troubadour fits best. The word troubadour comes from the French trouver, which means ‘to find’.
Examine all things, and hold on to what is good,
as it is written in the Gospels. His mother Mascha Cohen once said in an interview: “Leonard is on his way home.”
Verse 50 I lost my way, I forgot to call on your name. The raw heart beat against the world, and the tears were from my lost victory. But you are here. You have always been here. The world is all forgetting, and the heart is a rage of directions, but your name unifies the heart, and the world is lifted into its place. Blessed is the one who waits in the traveller’s heart for his turning.
From an interview with Patrick Watson:
I’d like to live a life in which the I is less prevalent. I think that the only way out of suffering is to somewhat resolve or attack that particular point of view.
Leonard Norman Cohen (9/21/1934 – 11/7/2016) was born in Montreal into a wealthy Orthodox Jewish family of Lithuanian descent. Early on he had a great interest in poetry and music, and became interested in the work of the Spanish poet Gabriel Garçia Lorca. He taught himself to play the classical guitar. After writing several moderately sold novels, he became known as a (lyric) poet/singer. He gained worldwide fame in 1968 with his song ‘Suzanne’, which was first released by the Canadian folk singer Judy Collins, after which – with a few breaks in between – he continued to write poetry, compose and sing almost until his death. He is best known for his poetic lyrics and characteristic singing style. His name appears seven times in the Dutch 2023 top 2000, apart from a number of his songs that have been covered by other artists. His work was translated into many languages.
[ii] Leonard Cohen’s Theories on Life, Democracy & the Future | MTV Full 1993
[iii] L.N. Cohen, Book of Mercy, Canongate 1984, ISBN 9781786896865